WASHINGTON—When you pay the sort of tuition that we Americans paid in Vietnam—58,249 Americans dead and more than 300,000 seriously wounded—it would seem incumbent on us to remember the lessons we learned for at least a generation or two.
One important lesson was that using enemy body counts as a metric of success corrupts the system and makes liars out of soldiers and officers.
The high command in Saigon in those long-ago days seized on a strategy of attrition—we will kill far more of them than they kill of us—and then to prove the efficacy of their fatally flawed strategy demanded body counts every time gunfire erupted in the jungle.
GIs ordered to comb the gloom of a battlefield counting bodies joked that they would, at times, tally up the arms and legs and divide by four. Whatever number they reported often grew like Jack's beanstalk as it climbed the chain of command.
That led to straight-faced colonels at the daily press briefing in Saigon, dubbed, not without cause, the "Five O'Clock Follies," reporting that 96 enemy were killed by body count, and 12 weapons were recovered.
A logical response was: "The hell you say."
In the wake of Vietnam, American military commanders, from Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf in the Gulf War to Gen. Tommy Ray Franks in the early part of the Iraq war, refused to play the body count game. Franks told reporters: "We don't do body counts." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld echoed this in the fall of 2003 on a Sunday show on cable television: "We don't do body counts on other people."
Well, guess what? Now we do.
There's no evidence of any written or announced change in U.S. policy on body counts. In fact, the senior military spokesmen in the Pentagon and in Baghdad deny that there's been any change.
It seems that we've just drifted back into an old and discredited way of doing business.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Don Alston, whose mouthful of a title is chief, communications division, deputy chief of staff, strategic effects, Multi-National Force, Iraq, told Knight Ridder that the release of figures on enemy killed was done because the Americans "were trying to provide more context to the Tal Afar operation" against suspected insurgents in western Iraq.
But he added that there's "no intention of making this a practice." Even so, body counts have become increasingly common, beginning with the Marines' estimate of 1,200 to 1,600 enemy killed in the capture of the city of Fallujah last November.
Some official communications experts admit that beyond providing some context to an operation, a ripping good enemy body count can bolster the morale of American forces and help illuminate success in a war of shadows that increasingly troubles the American people.
The trouble is that body counts can hide a lot of sins, including dead civilians who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So what do the Iraq numbers mean? Well, last year American commanders estimated that there were no more than 5,000 active insurgents in Iraq.
Those same commanders have reported that some 1,300 insurgents have been killed since the end of January 2005 and another 8,260 have been detained.
But wait! Before you declare the war over, consider this: Gen. John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, said on Oct. 2 that he estimates that there now are 20,000 insurgents.
So let's do a little math: Five thousand insurgents minus 1,300 killed equals 3,700 left. Minus 8,260 insurgents captured. Equals 20,000 insurgents still out there.
It's the more trustworthy numbers out of Iraq, however, that break our hearts. This week the 2,000th American was killed in that war, and the number of those wounded or injured now hovers around 15,000.
A friend of mine who keeps count of the number of American children orphaned by the war in Iraq because the Vietnam War left her fatherless reports that 21 American children lost their fathers in Iraq in the month of September alone.
That number is a national tragedy. These are young Americans who will grow up listening for a footstep they will never hear again; reaching out for arms that will never hold them again; living a lifetime with a hole in their hearts where a father was supposed to live and laugh and love.
And many, many times that number of Iraqi children have been condemned to the same heartbroken existence by insurgent car bombs and American mistakes.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young